As the cost of higher education has exploded the over the past several decades, many parents are left scratching their heads in disbelief at how unaffordable it has become, and they’re starting to question if it’s really worth it.
Many of us suspected federal subsidies fuel skyrocketing college costs. We were right. According to a new study from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, colleges raised their prices as the government started handing them cash hand over fist. For every dollar the federal government hands out via subsidized student loan money or a Pell Grant, tuition jumps 55 to 65 cents, The Week explained. Not only have federal funds spiked tuition, they did seemingly nothing to boost enrollment. College enrollment has actually been declining, further proof that higher education isn’t worth it after all.
In fact, we’re at the point where it’s fair to label much of “higher education” a scam. True, my husband and I received a truly excellent education in college that was worth far more money or words can express. To my parents and scholarship donors (and even my husband’s college-loan originators) I am forever grateful. But the kind of real education I received at Hillsdale is increasingly rare, to the point that I recommend only about a dozen U.S. colleges to people looking for the real deal. Other people are not only noticing the same, they’re sensibly starting to reconsider college as the default path into the middle class.
The Politics of ‘Debt-Free College’
That’s going to present a political problem for politicians such as presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley, who just endorsed “debt-free college“—which really means “socialized college,” or “making everyone pay for some people’s sex-soaked leftist indoctrination.” (What, you thought they were going to endorse delayed gratification and personal responsibility, i.e. saving for college yourself? LOL!)
As the data from the Federal Reserve shows, federally funding higher education is not making college more accessible, nor more affordable. So is increasing the government’s role in higher education really what we want? After all, it certainly won’t be debt-free for taxpayers.
Let’s be honest: paying for college or gaining access to it isn’t the problem with higher education. Anyone with a pulse can get into “college” and get taxpayer money to pay her way. The real problem is the thought monopoly our culture has granted “higher education” by endorsing it as the only respectable way to enter adult society. Everyone knows this thought monopoly directly benefits the Left because colleges are absurdly off-center political environments, which is probably the real reason Democrats are so eager to have every young person go.
Jerry Seinfeld recently told a radio host the buzz from comedians is “Don’t go near colleges. They’re so PC.” He complained about his 14-year-old daughter telling his wife it was “sexist” to suggest that the daughter might be interested in boys soon. “They just want to use these words: ‘That’s racist;’ ‘That’s sexist;’ ‘That’s prejudice,’” he said. “They don’t know what the f*** they’re talking about.”
Seinfeld is by no means the only one who’s figured out that college for most kids is six years of costly grievance training that makes young people worse for society than they were before they entered. We’ve even got self-described liberal professors writing anonymously about how terrified they are of the “Lord of the Flies” savages in their classes.
As for normal folks, in May I attended a classical education conference in Seattle. The concluding session was a panel that included a college professor, homeschool mother and author, K-12 headmaster and author, and K-12 school founder, school startup advisor, and curriculum author (these last three descriptions being united in one person). One of the inevitable audience questions was, “How do I prepare my child for college?” And the general consensus among the panel was, “Maybe you shouldn’t consider college at all. In fact, if your child does go, best if he takes a year or several off first. And then there are only about a dozen colleges worth the time and money.”
I’ve been attending education conferences for something like 15 years. Some parent always asks the college question. Only in about the past year or two have I seen the answer from “expert observers” change. It’s not just conferences, either. There’s something in the water. I continually meet more and more middle-class parents, average American types, who don’t envision college as the presumptive next step for their children after high school. If this takes off, it would be a massive culture shift. And there are signs it might.
College Enrollment Declines
New federal data shows college enrollment declined from 17.7 million in 2012-13 to 17.5 million in 2013-14. The long-term trends appear to show the last year or two have seen the first ever college enrollment declines since 1990:
Now, those are raw numbers, meaning not expressed as a percentage of population. So the dip could be due to a declining number of college-age Americans. But federal data also show that the percentage of high-school graduates enrolling in college has dipped. The New York Times reported this spring: “Last October, just 65.9 percent of people who had graduated from high school the previous spring had enrolled in college, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said this week. That was down from 66.3 percent the previous year and was the lowest figure in a decade.” Their graph below, using BLS statistics, is adjusted for population:
The article concludes: “there seems to be little doubt that the long-term trend of more and more high-school graduates going to college has halted, if not reversed.”
The image of college students as a bunch of lazy, lascivious drunks is as old as higher education. Long before “Animal House,” Renaissance writers complained about college students wasting their parents’ money and pretending to study abstract ideas while actually losing their religion, drinking too much, and chasing after women. But there’s more than that old stereotype going on here. People are starting to more broadly perceive that” higher education” is a scam, an entrapment. And it’s not just entitled whiners like Lee Siegel eager to force their debt on other people by deciding to default.
Let’s Review the Grievances
Ask anyone, like I just did to my neighbor tonight, what’s wrong with college, and he will say immediately: It costs too much. A quick follow-on is often the Seinfeld line, which has begun emanating from liberals and conservatives have chorused for decades: It’s too politically correct. Another major complaint we typically hear from businessmen and, thus, politicians: Graduates are not prepared for adult life in the marketplace, which is the enterprise’s major justification in our money-obsessed culture. More faintly, academic types and purists complain that kids aren’t learning anything while hogging down absurdly inappropriate luxury amenities (for people who have contributed almost nothing to society yet) like rock-climbing walls, world-class sports entertainment, and organic cafeteria fare.
All these complaints are true. College is wildly overpriced, at least if one considers its inflation rate since Congress decided to start forcing everyone to pay for it and every cultural leader started telling everyone college is the one-way ticket to prosperity: forget hard work, collect $200. Almost no item has increased in price at the rate higher education has over the past 40, 50, name-your-span years. It’s neck-and-neck with pharmaceuticals, another highly government-controlled industry.
While costs have increased, quality has markedly declined. The average college student now spends as much time on “leisure and sports” and “other” as he or she does studying and working, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics:
The average amount of time a “full-time” college student spends studying outside of class has dwindled from 24 to 15 in the past 50 years. Add in about 15-16 hours of class time per week for a full-time student, and you have students moving from a full-time academic job to a part-time academic job, without, on average, making up the difference with increased work to pay off that bigger tuition bill. The decline in study time happened across all college tiers and student demographics: “Study time fell for students from all demographic subgroups, for students who worked and those who did not, within every major, and at four-year colleges of every type, degree structure, and level of selectivity. This mountain of evidence suggests that a change in college culture has taken place over the past fifty years, a change that may have profound implications for the production of human capital and economic growth.”
And the academic “work” students do now has not only become less time-consuming, it’s become less challenging and, therefore, less economically and intellectually rewarding. A landmark 2011 study found, for example, that more than a third of college students made no learning gains between freshman and sophomore year. Surveys of freshman and senior college students have found a slight decline in student knowledge about American government and history during the college years, which translates into less civic engagement such as volunteering and voting.
The most recent annual review from the National Association of Scholars of what 341 colleges and universities assign students to read outside of class found that 96 percent of the selections have been published since 1990 (e..g are not complex, high-quality literary classics that would contribute to a student’s cultural literacy). “Most of the assignments were contemporary books about illegal immigration, racial identity, global warming, unjust incarcerations, gay and lesbian life, exaggerated fears of terrorism, affirmative action, recycling, vegetarianism, sexism, or wealth inequality.”
It’s Time for Better Options
Of course, many decent and responsible people are deciding to opt out of the college rat race before they enter it, rather than after they’ve received an anti-education. They know what’s really going on here.
As Ohio State economist Richard Vedder recently told the Wall Street Journal, central education planning has not accomplished politicians’ goal of getting more low-income kids into college. “Today, only about 7% of recent college grads come from the bottom-income quartile compared with 12% in 1970 when federal aid was scarce. All the government subsidies intended to make college more accessible haven’t done much for this population, says Mr. Vedder. They also haven’t much improved student outcomes or graduation rates, which are around 55% at most universities (over six years).”
Further, arguments from politicians and business types wanting taxpayers to shoulder their costs for on-the-job-training about how the future needs a more highly skilled workforce are bunk. Say we do need a more highly skilled workforce. The evidence, as noted above, is rather overwhelming that America’s higher-education system is producing less-competent graduates than before. To get more highly skilled workers, if that’s what we need, the data indicates fewer people should attend traditional college.
Second, as Vedder notes, the evidence isn’t very strong that the economy actually needs more degree holders: “Thirty-percent of the adult population has college degrees. The Department of Labor tells us that only 20% or so of jobs require college degrees. We have 115,520 janitors in the United States with bachelor’s degrees or more. Why are we encouraging more kids to go to college?”
Young people need an escape valve. We need more paths into adulthood than a one-way sentence to a four-year college worthy of the name that offers academic work only a fifth, at most, of the population finds stimulating. We need more opportunities for young people to simply work their way up a career ladder, like Thomas Edison or Andrew Carnegie had. This means eliminating age minimums for holding paid jobs, and abolishing (or, for heaven’s sake, at least reducing) the minimum wage. It means requiring government to stop picking career-entry winners and losers by getting it out of the accreditation business, and letting independent entities accredit alternatives to four-year college, such as apprenticeship and certification programs. It means cutting taxes and regulations on businesses of all sizes, so they can afford to hire someone whose work isn’t worth much until they’re trained three months later. It means colleges and employers communicating to young people that they value work experience at starter jobs just as much as they do the often namby-pamby volunteer work kids pile into resumes.
Throwing more of other people’s money at college will not yield an efficient economy that liberates individuals to pursue their own paths to happiness. Because parents care more for their kids’ well-being than distant bureaucrats, they’re getting in the trenches and figuring out workable alternatives that don’t leave their kids drowning in debt for a degree that doesn’t serve them. Government needs to get out of their way.
Bre Payton contributed to this article.